Top 10 Albums of 2011

Posted: December 14, 2011 in Uncategorized
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If you know me at all, you know that I love music and I love ranking stuff. Therefore, this was an easy choice for the first post on this blog in nearly a year. This wound up being lengthy, so I won’t bore you with a wordy intro or lame excuses for why I haven’t posted here in so long. I’d love to hear what your favorite albums were, so feel free to leave a comment.

10. The War On Drugs, Slave Ambient

The War On Drugs will forever be linked to former guitarist Kurt Vile, who left the band after their debut album Wagonwheel Blues and released a very good album of his own this year with Smoke Ring For My Halo. Vile’s album sold better and got more critical acclaim, but I like Slave Ambient quite a bit more. I think it’s simpler, easier to listen to and easier to get lost in. The War On Drugs have been compared to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen in terms of sound, and you can see why. They’re not on that level in terms of songwriting, but the Americana themes and longing for something more are all there.

Favorite song: “Brothers”

9. Foo Fighters, Wasting Light

You know what you’re going to get from the Foo Fighters at this point — a bunch of hard rock songs with a couple standout anthems mixed in. Wasting Light follows that basic formula, but Dave Grohl and company do it better here than they did on 2007’s Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace. The anthems here aren’t quite on par with 1999’s “Learn to Fly” or 2005’s “Best of You,” but the tracks between the anthems aren’t just filler, which has been a problem in the past.

Favorite song: “Walk”

8. The Poison Control Center, Stranger Ballet

The Poison Control Center have been compared to seemingly every 90s rock band that I love — Built to Spill, Weezer, Pavement, Guided by Voices — so it didn’t come as any surprise to me that I fell in love with Stranger Ballet as soon as I heard it. (By the way, The PCC isn’t a new band — they’ve been around for the last decade — but they were new to me this summer.) This album is just an awesome blend of rock and pop with catchy guitars throughout, something perfected by those bands mentioned above.

Favorite song: “Some Ordinary Vision”

7. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues

Indie folk. Folk rock. Whatever you want to call it, Fleet Foxes are doing it better than any other band right now — including Bon Iver — as far as I’m concerned. This is one of those albums that sounds simple and easygoing even though there’s actually a lot going on here, from the deep lyrics to the complex structure of some of the songs. Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut album in 2008 was very good, but this is even better in my opinion.

Favorite song: “Bedouin Dress”

6. Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What

The oldest artist on this list by a lot, Paul Simon proves that he is far from washed up with So Beautiful or So What. Much like his magnum opus, 1986’s Graceland, this album explores a vast array of musical styles with all kinds of fun instruments. Now, this is no Graceland, but it’s still a great album, perhaps Simon’s best since then. At 69, Simon is still writing much more thoughtful songs than pretty much anyone else around. Here, a lot of them focus on God, mortality and the afterlife.

Favorite song: “Rewrite”

5. Real Estate, Days

Real Estate has been described as a sort of modern surf rock, but Days feels even more laid-back than “surf rock” implies. There’s nothing here that will make you want to get up and move around, but if you just feel like sitting back, relaxing and listening to some good music, this is for you. Lots of songs built around smooth guitar and lyrics about things like “floating on an inner tube in the sun” and “aimless drives through green aisles.”

Favorite song: “Green Aisles”

4. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, Belong

Let’s just get it out of the way — this band has a stupid name. It’s awful. Fortunately, the music is not. Interestingly enough, I’ve seen The Pains compared a lot to two bands I don’t really like — Depeche Mode and My Bloody Valentine. But I’ve also seen them compared to the Smashing Pumpkins, a band that I love and a band that I think is a much better comparison. There is a little Depeche Mode electronic feel and there is some My Bloody Valentine shoegaze, but they rock more than Depeche Mode (see the title track below) while being more accessible than My Bloody Valentine (see the singalong chorus of “Heart in Your Heartbreak”). They find a nice balance between the two, much like the Smashing Pumpkins found a balance between hard rock and pop. They basically take elements of all three of those bands and combined them into this fantastic mix of rhythm and noise.

Favorite song: “Belong”

 

3. The Black Keys, El Camino

The Black Keys have been making really good blues rock since the early 2000s. Their last album, 2010’s Brothers, marked a breakthrough in terms of popularity, as it went to No. 3 and featured the minor hit “Tighten Up.” “Lonely Boy,” the lead single off El Camino, has already become the band’s biggest hit to date, and I fully expect El Camino, which was just released last Tuesday, to be the No. 1 album in the country this week. But, as anyone who knows me can tell you, popularity has nothing to do with what I think of a band or album. The reason this album is so high for me is because I think it’s their best album since 2004’s Rubber Factory, and possibly their best album period. Although there is a little more rock and a little less blues than in the past, it doesn’t feel overblown at all. There are no down songs here, something there has been on some of their other albums.

Favorite song: “Run Right Back”

2. Smith Westerns, Dye It Blonde

There’s not a whole lot of glam rock around nowadays, but the Smith Westerns are definitely the cream of the crop. You can’t listen to them without being reminded of T. Rex and early David Bowie. As The A.V. Club put it, Dye It Blonde “promises dreams fulfilled and nights danced away on clouds of billowy pianos, shiny guitars, and breathy vocals.” Normally, that sort of description would make me scoff at a band and easily dismiss them, but the Smith Westerns are so damn good at it that it doesn’t matter. Sure, some of their lyrics about teenage romance are a little corny, but hey, they’re only 20. It’s understandable that their lyrics aren’t quite as mature as their music just yet, and that’s one of the things that’s most exciting about this band — there’s still a lot of room for them to grow.

Favorite song: “End of the Night”

1. Wild Flag, Wild Flag

This all-girl band has been called an indie punk supergroup, with its members coming from Sleater-Kinney, Helium and The Minders. I’ll admit that the only one of those I knew was Sleater-Kinney, and even them I didn’t know too well (although I’ve come to know and like them a lot more as I’ve gone through their stuff). But you don’t need to know anything about Wild Flag’s background to realize this album kicks ass. It’s the best punk album, and maybe the best rock album in general, I’ve heard in a long time. To simply classify Wild Flag as punk isn’t fair, though. They’re punk in the sense that they remind me of great punk bands like Television and X, but I don’t really think of either of those bands as being strictly punk either. There’s more to their music, and more to Wild Flag’s music, than just punching you in the mouth with one heavy riff after another. There’s harmony and melody, too. It sounds like classic rock just as much as punk, and sometimes it even sounds like pop. I guess the best way to put it is that Wild Flag is just a great rock and roll album.

Favorite song: “Romance”

Notable omissions

You might be asking yourself, “Hey Scott, what about this album that was pretty big this year?” Or you might just be saying, “Jesus, this post isn’t over yet?” Either way, here are my thoughts on a few albums that were popular and/or big among critics.

Adele, 21

“Rolling in the Deep” is without question the song of the year, and I’d be willing to bet money right now that it will be the song of the decade when December 2019 rolls around. Expecting the rest of 21 to live up to “Rolling in the Deep” would be ridiculously unfair, but even after adjusting my expectations, I found the rest of the album a little underwhelming. I don’t hate it (OK, I kind of hate the cover of The Cure’s awesome “Lovesong”); I just don’t like it quite as much as the 10 albums above. If my list went to 15, 21 probably would’ve made the cut.

Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Bon Iver seems to be at or near the top of every publication’s albums of the year list, and it’s also gotten plenty of attention from the Grammys. I get that it’s “layered” and “complex” and yada yada yada. I’m just not a fan. I liked 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago, but I honestly think I liked the “lonely dude retreating to a cabin and recording an album in the woods” backstory more than the music itself. I don’t like Bon Iver nearly as much as For Emma, Forever Ago. Maybe it’s too artsy. Maybe it’s not as personal. Whatever it is, I just don’t like it that much.

My Morning Jacket, Circuital

I really like My Morning Jacket, and Circuital did well both critically and commercially, but I think it’s a mediocre album. There aren’t any songs I truly dislike, but there aren’t any I love, either. I’ve listened to the album a few times now, and each time I kind of just found myself in a state of indifference at the end. It’s definitely better than 2008’s Evil Urges, but it doesn’t match 2005’s Z and it’s nowhere close to their 2003 masterpiece It Still Moves.

Radiohead, The King of Limbs

Much like In Rainbows in 2007, this was the most anticipated album of the year for me. Unlike In Rainbows, which I loved, The King of Limbs was a disappointment. Everyone always talks about how you have to listen to a Radiohead album multiple times to truly appreciate it. For that reason, I didn’t chalk it up as a disappointment right away. I gave it a few more listens, but I wound up actually liking it less with each listen. That obviously didn’t bode well for its chances to make my top 10.

Jay-Z and Kanye West, Watch the Throne
Drake, Take Care

I’m just not a big rap fan in general, so it would take something really special for me to have a rap album in my top 10. Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy probably would’ve made the cut if I had made a list like this last year, but neither of these albums are on that level, and neither were all that close to being considered.

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Comments
  1. […] to note that 2012 was an awesome year for music. I definitely like this year’s list more than my 2011 list, and I’d definitely take the top of this year’s list over last year’s. That […]

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